Books Reviews

Featured Book Review: The Stuff Of Thought, by Steven Pinker

By Dan Schneider Jul 5, 2007, 14:22 GMT

Featured Book Review: The Stuff Of Thought, by Steven Pinker

Take One: Steven Pinker is the premier purveyor of the parsed poesy of plain prose.

No, that won’t do. No matter how accurate that statement is, its excessive alliteration is bound to sound too cutesy for such an engaging read as his latest foray into the way mankind thinks and speaks.

Take Two: In his previous bestselling books, such as The Blank Slate, How The Mind Works, and The Language Instinct (to name just the most influential), Pinker- a Harvard cognitive psychologist, has emerged as the premier science researcher and writer on the human mind and language. Yes, there are people who would point to philosopher Daniel Dennett as being a greater expert in the way the mind arose and works, and linguists and cognitive psychologists would likely point to Noam Chomsky as the granddaddy of all language theory, but as well theorized and as influential as the ideas of the other two men have been (not to mention the controversial natures of their ideas and personae) it is Pinker who has emerged as the public’s foremost educator in the field. He is to language and the mind what Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould were to astronomy and evolutionary science, respectively.

His latest book is The Stuff Of Thought: Language As A Window Into Human Nature, although a more accurate title might be The Stuff Of Language, since the book focuses far more on language, and parsing it down into its constituent elements. Yes, language represents thoughts we communicate, but when one views the word thought one is led to think that Pinker might be writing of the biochemical firings of neurons, and how one that zigs left results in memories of the smell of Aunt Bea’s cherry pies when a child, and when one zigs right a memory of losing your first fistfight is dredged up.

Nonetheless, at 439 pages, with over 40 pages of footnotes, the book is not a difficult read, and this is because Pinker, aside from being a gifted thinker, possesses an even rarer quality- he is a gifted writer. No, his gift is not in the creative field. I cannot speculate on how he would guide a fictive narrative nor end a poem. But, he has an elemental grasp of how to use words to sell ideas. First, he will elucidate the terms of what he is attacking or explaining, by using a lucid metaphor or analogy, and that is further heightened by his very apt use of pop cultural detritus- from the
obscure to the profane, and back again, and then he will usually contrast this to a pre-formed idea. That notion can be one that is put forth by another thinker, or rival, or may just be common knowledge, or even mythos.

This is something that many of the best thinkers fail to do, and results in often dry tomes that go nowhere. The best example of voluminous minds that (despite what one may think of their actual opinions) are very poor at getting across their points would be the literary critic Harold Bloom, and social critic Jacques Barzun. Neither man has an ability to draw a reader into the immediacy of whatever premise they are laying out. Neither man has an ability to draw apt analogies. And, neither man has Pinker’s eye, ear, and nose for cultural relevance, despite their storehouses of knowledge (which is often trivial, at best).

I mention this because too often book reviews of historical or scientific works devolve down into ‘I like it or not because I agree or disagree with A’s opinion or theory.’ This is not the case with The Stuff Of Thought. It is a good book because it is well thought out and well crafted. It rarely flags in keeping a reader’s attention, and I state this despite having a few minor qualms with the book, which I will mention.

The book is divided into nine chapters, and the first chapter, Words And Worlds, opens with some interesting queries on whether or not the thing known as 9/11, in our collective consciousness, was one or more events. After all, there were two planes that crashed into the two Twin Towers, plus there was the plane crash into the Pentagon, plus there was the thwarted plane hijacking which crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. And, they all happened at different times. Pinker does not give a definitive answer, but speculates on why both claims may be correct. He also parses President Bush’s infamous statement, in his 2003 State Of The Union Address, about Iraq’s supposed bid to acquire nuclear weapons in Africa, and explains in detail why so much hinges on the factive verb learn, which depending on how one understands it, can lead one to believe that the President lied us into the war in Iraq, or not.

Equally interesting is the question he asks about William Shakespeare. No, he does not dig into that silly canard over whether Shakespeare was gay or not because he wrote some sonnets from a feminine perspective, but he asks simply what do the words William Shakespeare mean? When one talks of The Bard, is one referring to the man commonly thought of as the Bard- the playwright who used that name (or its differently spelt variations), those thought to be Shakespeare (such as Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlowe, and a galaxy of others!), a great writer/poet, the author of Hamlet, or whomever it was wielded the pen? It’s an interesting tack and query, and one he later resurrects in regards to the musician Paul McCartney.

However, my first minor quibble with Pinker comes in at this point. He claims that whatever the case, the name is still attached to that ‘guy.’ Well, yes and no. Here’s why, and perhaps this is a point of view that only an artist or creator (as opposed to its antipodes- a scientist, or discoverer like Pinker) could have. The name William Shakespeare not only refers to a human being, and a deceased one, but also that person’s works. The fact is, since there is no human being who ever saw or knew William Shakespeare in the flesh, the idea of him as a human is rather remote. When most people think of Shakespeare they are referring to the poems or plays the man who lived centuries ago wrote, not the corpse rotting under Avon (presumably!). The same is true of any great artist. A Picasso is not the ugly little Spanish misogynist with a great way with brushes and oils, and the same is true with Shakespeare. The artist always becomes the work. Thus, while it may be true to state that William Shakespeare was a great writer, the author of Hamlet, or really Edward de Vere, that is only true when using the past tense. When one states that William Shakespeare is….all of that is false, except for the fact that Shakespeare is the poems and plays collectively, for when one asks, ‘Have you ever read Shakespeare?’ they are not asking if you ever saw the moldering tattoo on the dead man’s thigh that said, ‘Mother.’

Ok, I’ve quibbled. Now I will praise. Since I agree with probably all but a handful of Pinker’s assertions about language and its uses, on a technical level, it makes sense to give the reader a taste of how he uses words, and why his usage is well wrought. From the first chapter, on page 19, here is Pinker on taboo language (aka epithets, curses, swear words):

  While taboo language is an affront to common sensibilities, the phenomenon of taboo language is an affront to common sense. Excretion is an activity that every incarnate being must engage in daily, yet all the English words for it are indecent, juvenile, or clinical. The elegant lexicon of Anglo-Saxon monosyllables that give the English language its rhythmic vigor turns up empty-handed just when it comes to an activity that no one can avoid. Also conspicuous by its absence is a polite transitive verb for sex- a word that would fit into the frame Adam verbed Eve or Eve verbed Adam. The simple transitive verbs for sexual relations are either obscene or disrespectful, and the most common ones are among the seven words you can’t say on television.

  This is excellent writing, and perhaps the best published attack on (or denuding of, if you prefer) taboo language I’ve ever read. Yes, on a logical level, he states what should be obvious; that is why is something like shitting considered taboo, and why is my description of it (shitting) considered (to use Pinker’s term) indecent?

Then, he corkscrews it around, literally to the other side of the human anatomy, and speaks of sex. Yet, he also slyly morphs the conversation from that of an intransitive verb to a transitive one. I.e.- one can simply shit, but one must verb something. By framing his argument in the most lucid of terms (one can almost smell and see what is going on) Pinker makes the point seem far more urgent than it is. After all, the dilemma or conundrum of the lack of a polite transitive verb for sex is rarely discussed, even though its impolite forms are always on the minds of men: did, screwed, fucked, dicked, nailed, hammered, schtupped, banged, boinked, whaled, etc.

Another thing that makes Pinker’s writing so good is that whether or not one agrees with his view, on a moralistic or logical moral, one cannot help but be caught up in its argument, for look how plain and lucidly unfolded his argument is. There is no preening intellectually, nor self-congratulatory backpatting. And, finally, while I mentioned his nice inversion of both the human anatomy and grammar, he also distinguishes between taboo language as the thing itself, and the reasons why we invented and use such language. It is in these sly little *pops* that Pinker shows he not only understands the origins of language, but how to subtly use its often hidden ‘tricks,’ such as recapitulating visuals with linguistic tropes, and also using semi-hidden anaphora to induce an almost mesmeric quality before hitting a reader with an idea. What is anaphora? Read a Walt Whitman poem, where every line begins with the same few words or phrase, or read the Biblical ‘begats.’ Anaphora tends to have a mesmeric effect on a reader, lulling him into a sense of complacency so that the turn on to a new idea, theory, or concept is all the more jarring. In effect, anaphora acts as an amplifier to make the proposition all the more memorable in the reader’s mind, and also likely more receptive to it. And whether or not Pinker deliberately deploys these stratagems or not, it has no bearing on the resultant excellence of the text, because the end result is what matters. That Pinker may be naturally gifted in wordplay, or learnt his skill over many years, is an interesting addendum, at best.

Pinker uses these tricks a bit more subtly when he writes, ‘While taboo language is an affront to common sensibilities, the phenomenon of taboo language is an affront to common sense.’ This poetic sentence stands out from what follows it much in the same way that a cooing seductress might whisper sweet nothings into a responsive man’s ear to get him to do her bidding (or simply do her!). That Pinker uses such verbal abracadabra, not only here, but throughout this book and his others, is more proof of what separates him, technically and stylistically, from many of the other excellent writers in science’s current Golden Age. Again, you may disagree with Pinker on any or all levels in regards to his scientific claims, but my assertion of his excellent writing is unassailable.

The second chapter of the book deals with syntax, and is called Down The Rabbit Hole. Again, Pinker draws readers in about the absurdities of simple language construction. Perhaps one of these days he may explore the evolution of language itself- its genetic DNA, and compare how many of these absurdities repeat themselves in all languages, and in groups of languages. The third chapter is titled Fifty Thousand Innate Concepts (And Other Radical Theories Of Language And Thought), and in it Pinker spends most of his time debunking the titular claim of philosopher Jerry Fodor, when he’s not discoursing on entendre, euphemism, and dysphemism. Basically, Fodor proposes, according to Pinker, that humans are born with an immanent vocabulary, and since that vocabulary is constituted of words, which represent ideas, humans also have innate concepts of things. Pinker reveals himself to be a champion of Humean empiricism (see David Hume’s A Treatise Of Human Nature (1739)), and pretty deftly flays Fodor. After all, while a thing may be immanent, how we view that thing is not. A rock may be a rock (or a rose is a rose is a rose) even if we call it a Girl Scout, but something changes in our and others’ perceptions when we think of a rock as a Girl Scout. After all, if a little boy tosses something through a window, thus breaking it, it makes more sense to English speakers if we are told the thing was a rock, for heaving a Girl Scout would seem a) daunting for a little boy, as well as b) personally cruel, two things the tossing of a rock would not be deemed as. In short, all words are abstracts, and directed abstracts at the thing referenced.

Pinker’s debunking is another thing of beauty, in terms of wordsmithing. Take note at how he again uses pop cultural facts (and fictions) to get his point across, with great wit. This from page 95:

  My main brief against Extreme Nativism [Nativism is innate mental organization, or the way we perceive what comes into our brains- Dan] is that its key premise- that word meanings cannot be decomposed into more basic concepts- is mistaken. But Fodor’s dismissal of common sense deserves a comment as well. Fodor correctly notes that history has often vindicated unconventional ideas- after all, they laughed at Christopher Columbus and Thomas Edison. The problem is they laughed at Manny Schwartz, too. What, you’ve never heard of Manny Schwartz? He was the originator and chief defender of the theory of Continental Drip: that the southern continents are pointy at the bottom because they dribbled downward as they cooled from a molten state. The point is that they were right to laugh at Manny Schwartz.

  Aside from its humor, Pinker also gives a sly nod to one of his claimed poor debating tricks that losers in dialectic use. In this case, it’s almost a burlesque on the Appeal To Authority fallacy. Of course, Pinker could have added Immanuel Velikovsky and Eric Von Däniken to his list of would be charlatans, as well as the fact that the Velikovskys of the world outnumber the Edisons on an order of ten thousand to one, at minimum, and the point would be just as resonant!

Chapter Four is called Cleaving The Air, and it deals quite a bit with causality, as well as revisiting President Bush’s 2003 State Of The Union Address imbroglio, not to mention President Clinton’s notorious parsing of what the word is is. While an interesting discourse, it is not as illuminating as previous chapters, yet Pinker does engage in some offhanded interesting tidbits, such as his own pet peeve of using the lower case p for U.S. Presidents. One might also argue that he reveals a bit of his own Ivy Tower isolation when he makes a claim, on pages 166-167, that words as blonde or brunette are being phased out in favor of terms like woman with blonde or brunette hair. Perhaps in Academia, but they represent a fraction of a percent of society, and as the last several decades have shown, they are increasingly out of touch with mainstream culture.

Chapter Five, The Metaphor Metaphor, deals with dead metaphors and memes, and does so enjoyably, while the next chapter, What’s In A Name?, again shows Pinker as the nonpareil pop literate didact, combining high and low art and examples from pop culture to illustrate complex ideas with verve and humor, such as when he goes on about his own first name’s ascendancy in the field of science, and its stagnation as a popular name. This chapter should be a primer for anyone who wants to study fads and fashions. He also touches on the previously mentioned Paul McCartney trope- specifically the rumors of the Beatle’s premature death and the demotion of Pluto from planet to the ad hoc dwarf planet. Putting aside the terrestrial bias of excluding icy worlds, and the distinctly unscientific way in which the decision was made (basically, because Pluto’s center of gravity is outside its mass, due to the closeness of its moon Charon), as well as the sheer laziness of some scientists to include other, even larger icy worlds from the Kuiper Belt as planets, Pinker’s defense of the demotion makes little sense, for, logically, the new term for Pluto, dwarf planet, still recognizes it as a….planet. After all, it is not a dwarf éclair. A dwarf tree is still a tree, a dwarf species of animal is still an animal, and a human dwarf is still a human! Therefore, Pluto is still a planet, even by its dissenters’ own self-serving illogic. Finally, the chapter is a treasure trove on sniglets (made up words for things that have no ‘approved’ words for them), especially those of Yiddish origin.

Chapter Seven will easily be the most read and quoted chapter, for it is The Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television, so I will leave the easy quotations to others. It follows the ups and downs of censorship in the media, especially the seven words comedian George Carlin made famous in the 1970s: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Again, Pinker shows an unfailingly appropriate ear for when to insert an anecdote (unlike so many other writers) when he writes of Norman Mailer’s 1948 novel The Naked And The Dead, and how Mailer used the neologistic euphemism fug to depict the enlistees’ habit of cursing. He then relates the tale (perhaps tall) that literary critic and wit Dorothy Parker said to him, ‘So you’re the man who doesn’t know how to spell fuck.’ Cue the drum and cymbal!

Chapter Eight, Games People Play, is on semantics and threats, and is likely going to be the least interesting for many readers (although it’s still chock with good information and discourse), yet it aptly explains why straight shooters like me are loathed by the insecure and humorless. The final chapter is Escaping The Cave, which recounts the concept of Plato’s Cave and summarizes Pinker’s overall thesis.

The Stuff Of Thought is an excellent book, and while it may not be as groundbreaking and controversial as some of his earlier works, it is easily his most accessible and fun book to read, as it is so suffused in pop culturata. Yet, on a scientific level, the book does something quite amazing: it bridges the chasm that many Academics have over language itself. Postmodernists believe language is a circular self-referential trap, while pragmatists believe it lends insight into what reality is. Pinker’s book seems to posit that that is a false dichotomy, not because both claims are false, but because both are fundamentally true. And in the gullies created by the force of this remarkable fact lie the careers of men like Pinker, ever the Lokis of language to the obtuse, but the Prometheuses of polysemy to those in the know.

Now, about that beginning: Steven Pinker is the premier purveyor of the parsed poesy of plain prose….fire from strange gods, indeed!



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